I love pho. My parents introduced me to it about 8-9 years ago. My first bowl was at a little place in Lynnwood and I remember my dad being delighted to show it off to me. And I loved it! Now I look forward to sharing what I know about it with you. It’s my goal this week to highlight four places that have good pho, but different experiences at each. And on the side, provide some insight on a dish that I love. This meaty, brothy, spicy concoction loaded with noodles, meat, veggies and more.
Pho could be thrown into the category of food ubiquity. Like teriyaki, thai, and sushi, we aren’t at a loss for pho in Seattle, you will find a place everywhere. Which is a good thing for those of us that love it. Thus, Pho Week begins.
The most important aspect of pho is the broth. This is what all pho places should be measured against. It should be full flavored, meaty, a hint of sweetness, and the use of herbs should provide a nice depth. One thing to notice with the broth is if it separates. You don’t want this. I figured this out when I went to one of Seattle’s most popular pho places and noticed that over time the broth settled out. Basically, they didn’t let it stew very long. Not good. When you do get your pho, taste the broth before you add everything to it; this will let you know how good the broth is at it’s most simple.
Since I love food information, I started to delve into the history of pho. With no zeitgeist moment of birth, it has influences from China and France. The Chinese introduced rice noodles and intricate seasonings; the French introduced the uses of beef and stock. But pho started out as a straightforward noodle soup (meat, noodles, and broth) in northern Vietnam. As pho made its way south, the creative garnishes were then added. Sprouts, cilantro, basil, mint, lime, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, Sriracha, to name a few. All of these things pulled from the local cultures that influenced the cuisine.
The opportunity to customize ingredients might be a big reason for pho’s popularity. It’s very “now” to feel that what you do is unique to you. So when you add stuff to pho it’s your own little creation. You start with a dish that’s uniform; you can tweak and then cater it to your liking by adding the garnishes. I add sprouts, basil, lime, peppers, and even hit it off with some chili oil and Sriracha to turn up the heat. Some add hoisin to increase the sweetness. Just make sure to add the garnishes early as they only add in cooling down the soup.
The experience of a pho restaurant is an interesting thing. The menu is arranged by numbers and pictures; which could help because it’s never right to butcher another language. The meat choices are a little uncommon as well. You can choose eye round steak, brisket, flank and meatballs. However, the menu turns up the exotic dial with the options of tripe and tendon. Some of the meat choices arrive at your table raw, but no worries, the boiling hot broth will cook the meat. Taking everything together, you can see why pho is such a hit on weekend mornings; it will fill you up quickly after a night on the town.
Another thing to consider with pho is the service. A big aspect of pho restaurants is to allow the guests space, to let the diners enjoy their meal and not hover. For a service culture like the US, this could be a bit different. It’s not rudeness, it’s just how it is! Enjoy your experience and don’t hesitate to flag down your servers. And at most places you’ll have to go up to the counter to close out. Appreciate the experience and pace.
A few more tips on pho. One, don’t get pho to go. A big component of the experience is to get this steaming bowl of soup fresh off the boil. Travel time will draw away from this. Two, wear clothes you don’t mind getting a touch messy. It’s soup, so the chance of getting some on you are high. Three, get lots of napkins. You’ll be blowing your nose like crazy. If you have a cold, pho is perfect. Four, have fun! Who doesn’t love good soup?
Go out and try some of your neighborhood places for pho. And start being a bit more cognizant of your experience, understand why you like it so much, what draws you to it, etc. I hope I was able to shed a bit of light into pho and make sure to come back the rest of this week as we’ll be highlighting four places to grab it in Seattle.